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The Right Gear!

The Right Gear!
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The Right Gear!

The gearing on your road bike is one of the most important things to get right! The gears have a significant impact on how fast/ far you’re able to ride and how quickly you’ll fatigue your muscles. Therefore, correct gearing will maximise enjoyment and minimise your suffering!

If your gears are too easy you’ll spin out and be bouncing around on the seat. If they’re too high, you’ll be grinding the gears, getting out of the saddle and fatiguing your muscles quickly. Neither scenario works in terms of enjoyment and longevity of your riding.


Whilst the gears you ride at home may work in the terrain there, you may need to consider changing the gear ratios for an overseas cycling holiday. Research the terrain you’ll be riding in when abroad, length and gradient of climbs and the daily distances you are planning to ride and the amount of elevation you’ll be climbing. Remember to consider the steepest climb you’ll planning on tackling and also the fatigue you may encounter for riding several days back to back (something that perhaps you don’t do at home). If you are going on an organised trip with a reputable Tour Operator ask for their advice and look at the gearing they provide on their hire bikes. Whilst the gearing would probably be aimed to suit all levels of rider it’ll give you a good indication of what you’ll need.

Over the 13yrs of running the Andalucian Cycling Experience if seen riders turn up with a standard chain ring and 11-23 rear cassette and boy have they suffered…… unneccessarily so, but as the saying goes ‘You can lead a horse to water…..’!

I recently also got caught out in the Dolomites where I tackled the fearsome Mortirolo climb with a semi compact and 11-29 rear cassette. How I’d wished for a couple of extra easier gears that day! A brutal climb made harder by having my bike over geared for that particular climb. The Mortirolo is 11.4k average gradient 16%, it was never going to be ‘Easy’, but I spent way to much time out of the saddle busting myself to keep on pedalling!!

Below I have attempted to explain the gear options available to you

The chainset (Where the pedals are)

  • Standard: 53-39t
  • Semi-compact: 52-36t
  • Compact 50-34t
  • Triple 50-39-30t

A compact provides the easiest gearing on a double chainset. It is ideal for new cyclists, less-fit riders, those who like to spin, or people who live and ride in a hilly/mountainous terrain.

A standard chainset is at the other end of the spectrum. A standard is traditionally the favoured setup of racers, strong cyclists, or riders who live and ride in predominantly flat terrain. You’ll definitely be able to ride faster with a standard chainset, so long as you can turn the pedals!!

An increasingly popular option, and one I ride myself, is the semi-compact. A compromise between a ‘standard’ and a ‘compact’ chainset. It’s not uncommon to see these on bikes belonging to strong climbers, sportive riders, and even racers who find a standard setup outside their optimum range for general riding.

Triples give you an extra chain ring and a massive range of gears. Be warned there is a lot of work for the front mech to do and getting the setup correct so all the gears function properly is fairly tricky.

The rear cassette (On the back wheel)

The cassette offers the fine-tuning required to optimise your gear selection and maintain the ideal cadence (80-100RPM).

There are no specific names for the different cassettes but generally thet are available in 11-23t,11-25t,12-25t,11-28t, 11-30t and 11-32t configurations, so you can really fine-tune your set up.

The higher the second number (23,25,28,30,32) the easier the gear for riding uphill. The lower the first number (11 or 12) the faster you’ll be able to go on the flats or downhills. If you decide to fit a 30 or 32 you’ll need to change the rear hanger for a ‘longer cage derailer’ that will take the extra amount of chain required to cover the full range of gears

Personally I would prefer a higher number to make the climbs easier and let gravity do its work on the descents! But then I do a lot of climbing on each ride. Having the lower gears allows me to spin up the climbs, not fatigue my legs and ride 5 days a week.

Several years back I changed my road bike. My previous bike was an Orbea Orca with a compact and 11-25 rear cassette. I was starting to notice that I was having to get out of the saddle more on big climbs and i was grinding the gears (riding at low cadence). When I changed my bike, again an Orbea Orca, I elected the Semi compact and 12-29 rear cassette. The result of having a couple of ‘easier’ gears to use on the big climbs was immediate to see, I knocked 1m 40 seconds of my PB on Las Palomas (a 12.4k climb average grade 6.6%). No it wasn’t new bike syndrome I’ve since repeated the same time 6 times.

So whether you are struggling with the gears at home or planning a cycling holiday you do have options to change and make life easier and therefore increase your enjoyment of riding!

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